January 1, 2008

Rebel Private: Front and Rear

One of the most desirable and rarest of all Civil War books has to be the first edition of William A. Fletcher’s memoir, Rebel Private: Front and Rear. In 1908, Fletcher published his recollections of serving in two of the Confederacy’s most famed units: Hood’s Texas Brigade and Terry’s Texas Rangers. The first edition was a small printing published by the Press of the Greer Print of Beaumont, Texas. Fletcher died in 1915 however the majority of his inventory remained in the family home which was completely destroyed by fire in 1924. Most of the remaining books were lost in the blaze and the few that survived all show varying degrees of smoke damage. Only the limited number sold prior show no traces of damage. According to the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, only about 25 copies are known to exist today. In fact, they are currently offering one at $3,750 (pictured).

Despite the fire, the book ultimately achieved some notoriety. One copy had already been sent to the National Archives which allowed a young Margaret Mitchell to examine it as part of her research for Gone With the Wind; a fact acknowledged by Mitchell in a letter to Fletcher's daughter a half-century ago.

According to Civil War historian Robert Krick, “Fletcher wrote with rambunctious good humor and deadly realism” and even “reported his own drunken sprees.” Moreover, Fletcher displayed an “unmistakable relish over the number of dead Federals in evidence at Fredericksburg.” Wrote Fletcher, “the more dead the less risk.” While the book is certainly famous, not all critics agree with the accuracy of Fletcher’s memory. David Eicher in his The Civil War in Books described Rebel Private as “entertaining reading” but then warned that the book “bears the marks of much-embellished stories and so must be viewed and used with caution.” Nevins was also not so generous, writing that “what it omitted was more valuable than what it contains.”

The book was first reprinted by the University of Texas Press in 1954 with a new preface by Bell I. Wiley and has been reprinted many times since then.

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